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New Year’s Eve, Same Old Shit

‘New Year’s Day…now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.’

Mark Twain

There’s too much pressure on us to celebrate the coming of the New Year; the anticipation is so high it makes it impossible to enjoy ourselves, and the evening usually goes with less bang than a box of damp fireworks.

It’s not just about the fun that can be had. I’ve had my share of Catherine wheels and damp squibs, and some years that I did nought but sit watching Jools Holland’s Hogmanay on television. The highlight was probably the Millennium New Year, which I spent in a hostel near a stone circle on the Isle of Arran with a bunch of strangers, singing folk songs and drinking on a seal strewn beach until the sun came up. At their low point, four years later, I was left alone, abandoned for another guy on Leeds train station by a girl I’d been obsessing about for months. That’s the kind of New Year we can all do without.

How you spend it isn’t what I’m getting at, but the attitude to it. In my experience, New Year’s Eve is a disappointing affair because it renders in sharp relief twelve months of failings and wasted potential. What are you doing now that you weren’t doing a year ago? Have you moved on or achieved something with your life? Do you really think that next year will be different?

A New Year is an opportunity to put your problems behind you, and begin afresh. But you’re off to a poor start if you spend the first hours of it drunk, and all your good intentions soon decline until they accept the status quo. Gyms see a huge swelling in memberships every January, as if we are seriously gullible enough to think we are going to stick at these new regimes, whether they are diet and exercise, fidelity, financial solvency or philanthropy. It’s a case of New Year’s Eve, same old shit.

So, with that in mind, I fully understand your doubt when I tell you that in 2012, for me at least, things are going to change.

For the past few years I have been conducting my life like trench warfare – trudging through the mud, barely sticking my head above the parapet. I am stuck in what can only be described as a rut. The inspiration for change comes from a close friend, who two years ago decided the life he was leading no longer had anything to offer him. His work, social life, relationships, hobbies and location had run aground – very much the state my life is in now – so he decided to do something drastic about it. He upped sticks, moved down south, got a new job and a new life. It involved some struggles and some ups and downs but now, almost two years on, he’s just got married, has a baby on the way, has started a very desirable new job working for the police, and has a new flat.

I’m not saying that’s the life I want – the idea of a family right now terrifies me beyond reason – but it’s the kind of difference I need in my life. There’s potential, for certain. I’ve begun a new relationship which is going better than I ever imagined it could; I’m getting away from home more and experiencing new things; I’ve begun to write again – hence this blog.

I’m not necessarily advocating a complete life transplant – the grass isn’t always greener – but sometimes these little New Year concessions just aren’t enough to effect the kind of change that is needed. A New Year could be just that – one completely different from the year before.

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Disney Princesses – Not All Bad…

Confession: sometimes I quite like Disney.

I am totally on board with the “Pink Stinks” campaign. As the mother of a son and a daughter I have tried to select toys that are gender neutral. It hasn’t stopped my son from being car/train/plane mad and hating pink and dolls. However he loves baking and cleaning so I think I am doing a pretty good job. Besides, my nieces were all car/train/plane mad when they were my son’s age! I have been known to dress my son in pink (until he decided pink was for girls – I blame his nursery friends!) and rarely buy clothes in that colour for my daughter.

Belle from Beauty and the Beast with a bookBut I must confess I rather like Disney. Not all Disney. I hate the Princessy stuff that implies you have to be beautiful and get a man to be happy – yes Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I am talking about you! However I am not ready to dismiss them all. I love Belle(Beauty and the Beast), her love of books and her ability to look beyond the surface to see a man she could connect to on both an intellectual and emotional level.  I am also a big fan of kick-ass Princess Fiona from the Shrek movies and that she chose to remain fat and ugly because to her beauty did not equate to happiness.

There are other good female role models to be found if you squint. Mulan was pretty brave going off instead of her father into war. I have recently introduced my son to Sinbad as well, Eris maybe a bad guy but she is female, strong and articulate. She also knows when to make a tactical withdrawal without losing face. Marina isn’t even a princess – she is an ambassador, presumably on her own merits. She consistently demonstrates strength, ingenuity, compassion and wit, all admirable traits in any person. She follows her heart in the end, leaving her fiance the noble prince (who Princess Fiona from Shrektakes it in good stride) to go with Sinbad – but she does it on her own terms and her need to pursue a different path to what was laid out for her. The only time she needed rescuing was because she had been distracted by the need to rescue someone one else!

These are the sort of Disney Princesses I want to capture the imagination of  both my son and my daughter. I want them both to appreciate that although men and women are different, they are equal and have their own strengths and weaknesses

An Alternative Christmas Pudding

I hate Christmas Pudding. I detest dried fruits. I cannot stand brandy. I don’t care for stodgy food.

This year I commandeered Christmas Dinner, there was only me and my dad to cook for, so it was an easy job, and I had a great time making it, and an even better time shoving it into my pie hole. The starter of Gravadlax  (cured salmon) on a bed of rocket was simply an assembly job, and the main of Roast Duck with Most Of The Trimmings was classic Sunday roast stuff, just with a different bird, however what I was most proud about was the pudding I made.

It’s the sort of pudding that I think ol’ Pudding Face himself, Greg Wallace, of BBC’s Masterchef, would approve of, and say “oh mate” after finally removing his spoon from his gob. Even if I do say so myself.

I’d like to share that recipe with you, so here it is…

Panna Cotta With Raspberry Coulis and a Macadamia Nut Crumb

(serves 3)

Ingredients:

(for the panna cotta)

  • 250ml semi skimmed milk
  • 250ml double cream
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 3 gelatine leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

(for the raspberry coulis)

  • frozen raspberries
  • icing sugar
  • bourbon whiskey or lemon juice

(for the macadamia nut crumb)

  • honey roasted macadamia nuts

Method :

  1. Add the milk, double cream and sugar to a pan and simmer over a low light
  2. Add the gelatine leaves to a bowl of cold water and leave to soften
  3. Scrape the seeds from a vanilla pod into the milk, cream and sugar, add the vanilla pod, and the vanilla extract
  4. When warmed through, remove the vanilla pod.
  5. Squeeze out the water from the gelatine leaves and add to the hot liquid.
  6. Pour panna cotta mixture into moulds, and refrigerate overnight.
  7. On the day of serving, blitz macadamia nuts, or grind in a pestle and mortar to a crumb, and then add to a dry, non-stick frying pan, and keep moving until they go slightly toasty. Put this crumb to one side and allow to cool down to room temperature.
  8. Add the raspberries to a blender – retaining a few for presentation – adding icing sugar (to taste) and a splash of either bourbon (which matches the vanilla flavour) or lemon juice, and blend. If it’s too sharp, add a touch more icing sugar.
  9. Strain the blended raspberry through a fine mesh sieve to remove the pips and keep chilled until serving.
  10. To release panna cottas, simply place moulds in some shallow warm water to loosen the edges so they can be upturned into a serving dish. Serve with the crumb and add the coulis.

Denounce bling, says man on golden throne

I hope, when Pope Benedict XVI gave his Christmas Eve mass this year, he did so with a healthy sense of irony. The commercialisation of Christmas, or ‘superficial glitter’ as he put it, should be shunned in favour of a simpler, more Christian celebration. The obvious response, I would hope, from any reasonably educated individual would be that he should practice what he preaches.

The institution of the Catholic church, and indeed any religious institution, is a business set up to regulate and control the belief structure of its devotees, and to make money doing so. It is not necessary if, for example, you support Manchester United or Chelsea to belong to a supporters club, to go to matches at home or away, to buy merchandise or to subscribe to a pay-per-view channel to support your team. All these are part of a structure to facilitate your support and to make money from it. Your support is a given whether or not you participate in these activities. All it does is make it easier for you to do so.

Religious institutions are no different. They provide group activities, in a designated place of worship; they have paid individuals like priests who aid in this worship; they elicit donations of money and time from devotees; they sell merchandise such as medals, rosary beads, crucifixes; they support travel and pilgrimage by individuals and groups to other sites of worship; they even have their own radio and television stations and bookshops to spread their message. They are structured and behave in every way like a business, except that in many countries they enjoy tax-free status.

The current pontiff’s predecessor, John Paul II, instigated the practice of publishing the Vatican’s finance reports in 1981, to dispel the perception that the Holy See was rich. In the three years leading up to 2010, the Vatican reported small losses of a few million euros, before returning a profit of around ten million last year over an expenditure of 235 million. Any institution that has a cash flow of almost half a billion euros can be considered rich by any measure, whether or not they make small profits or small losses.

Not taken into account are the assets of the church, which must amount to billions in real estate, art and artefacts etc. I struggle to take seriously a message of fiscal modesty from a man who lives in the kind of extravagant opulence that would make most monarchs look like they hadn’t two palaces to rub together.

Compared to some, the Catholic church is relatively indirect in its methods. At its most extreme and obscene, daylight robbery is committed in the name of people’s good faith, exemplified by televangelists such as Oral Roberts. Amongst his fundraising methods were claims such as in 1987 when he said that God would call him to heaven – kill him, in other words – if he did not receive $8m within a set period of time. He raised it, and more. Unlike the Catholic church, pastor Roberts’ aides thought the flagrant bling he wore wasn’t an appropriate image for an honest televangelist, and his jewellery was airbrushed out of photos. That isn’t an example specific to the Catholic church, but I give it to highlight the fact that organized religion can be and is used as a vehicle to take individuals and institutions to the riches they desire.

The message at the heart of Christmas is a good one, with which I have little argument. This year I spent my first Christmas with my family for four years, and to be with them was more important to me than any amount of pretty baubles. Sure, I’d have been disappointed if there’d been nothing under the tree for me, but it would have been enough to spend time, have a drink and a good meal with those that are dear to me. The message of peace and love can often get lost among the modern trappings of the season.

The question is do we need this elderly, out of touch relic of an outdated belief system to tell us to be nice to each other, and that love is more important than money? The Catholic church certainly hopes so, because as soon as we don’t they have no need to continue to exist.

My Taxpayer Funded Brew

I’ve been thinking today – why am I so scared to tell people I’ve had a good day?  Essentially, it boils down to one thing.  I’m scared they will judge me for being on benefits.

Every time I want to, for example, post on Facebook about going to a cafe for a lovely brew, I get a wave of self doubt.  What if somebody reads it and thinks I have too much money?  What if they read it and think I am too happy and so can’t possibly be mentally ill?

Teacup full of british copper coins 1p 2pEven if I look at my bank account and it isn’t at exactly zero, I start feeling guilty, as if me having that £250 savings for a rainy day means that I must somehow have money that I shouldn’t.  So that is guilt if I spend the money, and guilt if I don’t.

Being on benefits seems to make you into public property.  Suddenly, people feel that they are personally funding your every hot beverage and newspaper, and so resent you for having it. Every good day is marked down in thier heads as evidence that you must be swinging the lead.  Every time they see you do anything productive, even leaving the house, they think you could be working.

Of course, I know it isn’t everyone (before this gets filed under “Alicia being mental again” 🙂 ) but I know that a significant amount of people feel like this.  I have had so called friends tell me to my face that, if they were claiming benefits, they would be too ashmed to admit it.  I have heard people slagging off thier aquaintances.  I have even had direct abuse, from people who know me and my husband personally, about us having two children before we had some kind of magical guarantee that neither of us would ever get ill.  This is all without the general background rumbling of various newspapers, websites and so on, and thier paranoia about scroungers on every corner.

Here’s my message to them all.  Listen up world.

“SOME of your taxes go towards a safety net, so that the weakest in society can still have some quality of life.  Tomorrow, any number of things could happen to you, and you will be glad that the welfare state is there.”

The majority of families who receive benefits have at least one member in paid work, it just happens that that person isn’t deemed “valuable” enough to an employer.  Sometimes there either isn’t the work, or isn’t the work that the person could do, or they are just too ill for any work.  Sometimes, the person needs friends, family and the wider world to just see them as a person, not as faceless “dole scum” and give them a chance.

Yes, there are fraudsters.  But, you know what, there are many more people who cheat taxes.  Just think of them next time you see your payslip – take off the cost of all those millions not paid in tax that you are taking the strain of.  Leave me, and my brew, alone.

The Return of the Polish Dude

He appears to have decided we’re not racists after all; well, he’s still buying booze from us, and you wouldn’t buy booze from a Nazi, right? Anyway, this time he comes seeking advice from the highly knowledgeable offy staff.

“What is best drink for woman?”

“Um…gin’s popular. Or Taboo.”

“Is for woman, so must be very sweet.”

“Baileys is sweet. £10.99 a bottle.”

“Hmm…is strong? Must be sweet, and strong, so later…woman is easy. [Makes internationally recognised hand gesture for putting your willy in a lady]. I take Baileys. And 20 Pall Mall Red.”

Which is probably the real reason behind 90% of Baileys sales, but I’ve never heard it put quite so bluntly.

The Vague Ghosts of Christmas Past

‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’

Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

It is often said you can’t go home again. This Christmas I tried to do just that, and came to understand better exactly what is meant by the phrase.

Things change, and you can’t do anything about it. For the past few years I’d been trying to make my own Christmas traditions, away from the familiar ones of my childhood and adolescence, with my partner and my cats with whom I shared a house, in a different town, with different friends. There was a conscious effort to have as little as possible to remind me of the Christmases of old.

But things didn’t quite work out, as things often don’t, and with that life as lost as the receipts for the gifts you want to take back, this year I had a choice between Christmas alone and Christmas with my family. I make it sound like that was a choice between a rock and a hard place – nothing of the kind – but to go home to my family was the obvious and preferred choice, only I did so with caution in case I stir up the vague ghosts of Christmas past.

The Christmas of my childhood is a picture postcard, framed behind glass in the eye of my memory. It is an untouchable, perfect, magical time. It also varied very little. The routine was kept to year in, year out. We would have to wait until ‘he’ had been, although as the years passed it became apparent that ‘he’ did not exist and what we were waiting for was our grandmother and uncle’s arrival to watch us open our presents. When this was done with the excitement appropriate to children, we would get ready and go next door, where the adult neighbours would have a festive drink and the children – there were lots of children on my street where I grew up – would play. Early afternoon we would travel to our grandmother’s house to enjoy Christmas dinner with my uncles, aunties, cousins and occasionally my cousins’ boyfriends – my cousins were a bit older than me – followed by party and board games.

This time, we were more insular. Those children on my street are now also grown, and some have families of their own, as does a cousin, and are beginning traditions of their own. We went through some of the moves, like drinking with the neighbours, but otherwise it bore little resemblance to my sepia tinged memories.

My parents were never rich, and as children my sister and I were never spoiled, but at this time of year they made us feel special. Now I have a better appreciation of the value and cost of items, I understand how generous they were with us. I recall one year I had asked for a SEGA Master System – not a top of the range gaming system for the time, but one, I reasoned, within the possibilities of my parents budget – but when it came to Christmas day I found they had forked out for its better, more pricey big brother the Mega Drive. Another year I recall having opened all our presents and being thoroughly pleased with our haul, only to have, a little later, our dad wheel in a mountain bike each. Shallow and consumerist, you could accuse me, but you don’t understand anything else when you’re a child.

But what I am bemoaning the loss of isn’t the monetary value of Christmas, or the fact I’m now perceived to be of an age where moccasin slippers or Marks and Spencer aftershave seem an appropriate gift. Where it hit home most was at dinner, with only five people at the table. Five people whom I love and cherish, but it just highlights who isn’t there.

You can’t go home because you want everything to be as it was, as if you’d never been away, relatives had not passed, and you lived a simpler life, protected from your worries. And at Christmas it’s the hardest time of all to go home.

Bread Recipe for the Slapdash

Making bread is lovely, and is about the easiest thing possible.  It seems to have a kind of mystique around it, and while a nice big loaf of tiger bread from the supermarket is nice, nothing beats a nice chunk of tasty homemade bread, with butter thickly spread on top. Really good bread can be like a savoury cake – it doesn’t need anything else and has its own depths of flavour and texture.

Ignore weights and measures and just go by feel – it is almost impossible to mess up.  It feels wrong calling this a recipe, so here is my method.  Everyone has their own little variations, but it is all basically flour, water and  yeast.

FLOUR

Put some bread flour in a mixing bowl.  I like about a third wholemeal and two thirds white, but go with what you feel like (or happen to have in the cupboard)  Apparently newer flour is better, but I’ve never noticed a difference, so buy it when it is on offer and keep in a sealed container.

You want approximately half a normal sized bag of flour. but a bit more will just make a bit more bread and vis versa.

OTHER STUFF

Next you need yeast.  With instant yeast, put in one packet, or do whatever the container says on the side for other types.

Then add a good big spoon of sugar and a smaller one of salt, and a big glug of oil of some kind (olive is nicer, but vegetable or sunflower is fine)

Here is my secret – you don’t have to, but you will get a better result if you crush a vitamin C tablet and add it to the mix.

WATER

Get some blood temperature water – it should just feel pleasantly warm to your fingers.  Mix it in bit by bit until the dough looks like, well, dough.  Don’t worry if you put too much water in – just add more flour.

KNEAD ONE

This is the fun bit- chuck loads of flour onto a surface – a scrubbed table, a chopping board, whatever.  Then attack the dough – pull it, squash it, squish it, roll it.  I press any passing children into service for this bit – my four year old is a dab hand.  If things get sticky, add more flour.  Do that till you, or the child, gets bored.  Then put the dough back into the bowl and put it somewhere warm – imagine it is a cat, and put it where a cat would go.  Unless there is already a cat there – in that case, put it somewhere else.  You can also put it in the fridge overnight if you like, which is slower, but can give better results.

KNEAD TWOHomemade bread for slapdash peopel

When the dough is twice the size it used to be, get it out and do another knead.  Then find some kind of baking tray and put the dough on it – make sure there is room for it to become double the size.  Put your oven on to heat up – about 200 degrees if you have a oven that lets you choose.  I used to use a range oven and just used the hot bit.  Put the dough somewhere warm again – near the heating up oven could be good – until it has expanded to slightly less than twice its size.  Then put in the oven.

It will be quite happy in the oven while other stuff is cooking, or I have even baked it in the oven after it is turned off from cooking a big meal.

The bread is ready when it a) looks like bread and b) if you pick it up and tap the bottom, it sounds hollow.

EAT

My slapdash approach to recipes does mean that the bread turns out different each time, but I like that.  You can also add seeds, garlic, olives, cheese, onion – whatever you like, and you can put it in weird shapes if that floats your boat.

Ooh, and something worth trying is to get the oven steamy – I sometimes put a yorkshire pudding dish of hot water on the bottom of the oven.  It makes the crust nicer and seems to make the bread softer.

Quantum Mechanics for dummies, and why I am stupider than I thought.

Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.’

Richard Dawkins

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics,‘ said American physicist Richard Feynman in 1965. Mancunian TV-friendly, mop-haired, keyboard fingering, science teacher Professor Brian Cox tries to explain it anyway to an audience full of familiar entertainment faces, in a one-off BBC presentationA Night With The Stars from the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Rather than the eponymous cat, the example object in the box is a rough diamond – a million pounds’ worth of uncut precious rock – or rather its tightly packed carbon atoms. Through this example, Professor Cox seeks to enlighten the assembled celebrities and viewers of the perplexing world of Quantum Mechanics. I can’t speak for the celebrities, but I came away feeling like I knew less than when I started watching.

You see, that’s the problem with quantum mechanics: It’s harder to wrap your head around than it would be to wrap an iron bar around a strand of hair. I’ve always found it intimidating, as it involves a degree of mathematics, lateral thinking and imagination in harmony that goes beyond my learning. Don’t mistake me; I’m no idiot – although after trying to crack quantum mechanics I have a hard time believing it – but the sciences were never my strong point, being of a more creative type. As an adult, I’ve tried to fill in the holes in my learning the best I can, and Professor Cox is an accessible enough presenter, but the subject is harder to approach than the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen on a dance floor surrounded by dozens of guys better looking and more charming than you.

I’ve read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking three times. I say that not as a boast, as the the second and third times were trying to get it to sink in. Biology and the science of evolution by natural selection fascinate me. Tell me a fact about dinosaurs and I’ll lap it up. But Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene still sits on my shelf mocking me, and even after this show quantum mechanics continues to elude me.

Basically, for those who are unfamiliar with the workings of quantum mechanics – which is most people – it describes the behaviour of the very, very small, and how it can be used to predict the behaviour of the very, very large – stars and other such stellar objects. It says that sub-atomic particles travel in waves; that everything is related to everything else; and that it acts completely counter-intuitively to anything prior science predicted. Einstein himself said of it: ‘Marvellous, what ideas the young people have these days. But I don’t believe a word of it.’

The annual Royal Institute Christmas lectures are a popular form of scientific entertainment, in a similar vein to A Night With The Stars. They’re intended for children and young people, although enjoyed by adults too. Thus far, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a lecture on quantum mechanics. I’m not sure that the subject can be boiled down to a degree where it is suitable for consumption by children. Or maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way and it’s complex enough for children to take in their stride. All I know is if you stop paying attention for a second it’s like you’ve turned two pages of a book over at once.

When I was a child, television’s go-to mad scientist was Johnny Ball, presenter of such programmes as Johnny Ball Reveals All. I’m not as familiar with current children’s television, but I’m guessing there’s no equivalent of this or How2, and that they are biased largely towards entertainment rather than education. If there were, perhaps I could build up to A Night With The Stars eventually, but for now I’m left still scratching my head.

My New Book Buying Policy

After the whole “perfect princess” thing (see my previous post) I have decided to draw a line in the sand.  It is all very well having a case by case judgement on each thing and all, but sometimes you need to send a clear message to retailers, suppliers, manufacturers and everyone else who is putting these things in front of your children.

I would love it if you could join me.  It is a pretty basic rule.

I will no longer buy any books for my child that are labelled by gender.

That is it.  We’re not talking about colours or subjects, we are not talking about in depth analysis of the message.  Just that simple rule.Child reading a book

Unless it is “how to maintain your genitals”, (which is unlikely to be in a mainstream bookshop children’s section anyway…) there is no need for a children’s book to be gender specific.

So, no more “Boys Book of Football”, no more “Animal Stories for Girls”.  Animal stories and football stories are fine, but why are we automatically excluding half of all children in the title?  Even books with titles like “Girls Can Do Science Too!” are setting themselves up as being somehow unusual.  Boys and girls don’t want or need to be shoehorned into marketing sectors.  Especially not when it comes to learning and books.

I realise this rule misses a lot of books (it would even have missed out our old friend Princess Twinkle) and it may well include the odd book that has good contents, but, you know what, I’m tired of all this.  Publishers need to stop telling my children what is and isn’t for their gender.  If your book is so good, why can’t all children read it?

If enough of us do it, publishers might start noticing.  For now, they can still put a load of pink frilly stuff on the animal book, and a load of muddy boys on the football book, but lets not make it so blatant.

It might be a small, flawed step, but it is something.

Incidentally, a brilliant campaign against the “pinkification” of girls’ toys, clothes and books can be found at http://www.pinkstinks.co.uk/ – go and have a look at the excellent work they are doing.

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